Covid-19 has made the world pause. Nepalis stayed home on the eve of New Year 2077 and started the first morning of the new year with no idea of when they would get back to normal life. New cases of the novel coronavirus continue to appear, adding to the widespread fear. Meanwhile, the government is taking ad hoc measures instead of coming up with a firm strategy to support the poor and sustain the national economy.
The Ministry of Finance, which is supposed to come forward aggressively with plans that can be adjusted each day depending on the scenario, doesn’t seem to have a clue of what’s happening in the economy, let alone be bothered of the impending poverty and privation. Finance Minister Dr. Yubaraj Khatiwada, who seems intent on sidelining private sector and entrepreneurship, doesn’t know what holds the economy together. If he did, the situation today would be much different.
His statements before the World Bank Group Nepal Office representatives exemplified the stupidity, insensitivity, and recklessness of his leadership at this time of crisis. He talked about vague issues that had nothing to do with fighting the broad economic impact of the pandemic.
Likewise, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli addressed the nation last week. But he too had no message of hope for the panicked public. Rather he spent his time explaining why it’s futile to question the procurement process of health materials from China. Estimates show that globally, around 600 million people will be pushed into poverty and that certainly includes people from Nepal. Those at the bottom of the income and wealth ladder have harder days ahead. But the government is silent on what can be done to help them survive this ‘man-made crisis’.
A recent World Bank update shows South Asia sub-region’s growth falling to between 1.8 and 2.8 percent in 2020, down from 6.3 percent projected just six months ago. Although Nepal’s share in sub-regional GDP is minimal, the country’s economic growth is expected to significant slow down in 2020.
The national economy, including the agriculture sector, has come to a halt. There is no preparation to ensure availability of agriculture inputs as planation time closes in. In the event of the country’s inability to control the crisis in agriculture, the economy will be in a free-fall, driving vast numbers of farmers into absolute poverty. The government doesn’t seem to be paying attention to this critical issue.
There will be severe food insecurity in the country due to supply shock. The World Bank has warned that a rapid spread of the virus could reverse the recent positive trends in poverty and result in high levels of food insecurity and widespread malnutrition among children.
Investment, both domestic and foreign, will fall, leading to lower job creation. A large fiscal deficit will be added to public debt, directly affecting Nepal’s fiscal sustainability. Daily wage earners will be hit the hardest. Remittances will significantly decrease, impacting both forex reserve and the livelihood of those who rely on it. The informal sector, which makes up nearly 70 percent of the national economy according to same estimates, has stopped functioning.
Against this bleak backdrop, the government seems the least concerned and ill prepared to handle the corona fallout. Worryingly, the Ministry of Finance does not seem to have a clue about how to move ahead. It is not having necessary dialogues with development partners, it lacks detailed analysis and insights on what’s happening, and it has failed to undertake a rapid assessment of the economic impact of Covid-19.
Dr. Khatiwada can always argue that even the best of government plans failed in tackling the virus, just as has happened in far more developed countries. But this will be a lame excuse even as the economy teeters on the edge. Let’s hope people won’t have to start dying for the government to come to its senses.